Alex Lyles, Karst Resource Technician, US Forest Service

As an avid outdoorsman, getting my degree in geology was the best decision I have ever made. Because of this degree, I currently work as a geology field technician with the US Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. My job focuses on the conservation of karst, a landscape characterized by soluble (easily dissolved) bedrock that often contains caves, sinkholes, springs, and complex subsurface hydrologic networks. Karst ecosystems are exceptionally productive for wildlife, but also sensitive to runoff caused by logging, road building, waste management, and farming. My position in Alaska mostly focuses on potential logging units, since that is the main economic driver and logging near karst features often produces sediment runoff that can inundate karst systems and cause adverse hydrologic, biologic, and ecologic effects on the forest ecosystem.

I first came to southeast Alaska the summer after my senior year of undergrad, having been offered an exciting GeoCorps internship as a cave guide through a partnership with Geological Society of America (GSA) and the US Forest Service. This position, located on Prince of Wales Island, greatly helped me solidify and communicate my passion for geology, particularly the intricate workings of karst geology. I always highly recommend GeoCorps internships to budding geologists and environmental scientists because they expose those with little-to-no experience to potential environmental work in the public sector. It was my GeoCorps position that allowed me to meet Dr. Jim Baichtal, the Forest Geologist for the Tongass National Forest. Jim values my good attitude and enthusiasm for geology and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping, and brought me back to Alaska as a field technician in the beginning of 2017 when I finished my undergraduate degree.

I have remained in this occupation since, and am gearing up to begin my third field season as a Karst Technician in Alaska. While this position is not research-based, I have had extensive opportunity to study the quaternary history of southeast Alaska, focusing on regional to local-scale glacial geomorphology to decipher ice flow patterns during the late Wisconsin Glaciation, which I presented a poster on at the annual GSA conference in 2017. I also know that my job as a tech has greatly sharpened my understanding of geomorphic processes and how they tie into the greater ecology, especially concerning karst landscapes. Much of my position also involves extensive aerial photography interpretation of vegetation and geomorphology prior to entering the area of reconnaissance to determine the “hot spots” for karst features. Aerial photo interpretation has become somewhat less necessary since the recent acquisition of half-meter resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imagery, considering that most caves, sinkholes, and springs are readily apparent upon inspection of the bare earth digital elevation model (DEM). The LiDAR makes my work easier and less likely for me to miss features, but hardly puts me out of a job, seeing as most of these features still need to be field verified and observed by a specialist to determine their significance and role in the landscape before the area undergoes any land management activities.

Left: An image of the bare earth DEM LiDAR hillshade showing a mountain lake draining into a sinkhole. Right: The same area, but with a sink fill function ran through ArcMap and converted to polygon contours to better show the detailed drainage pattern of the feature.

As a field tech, I use GIS every day, mostly centered on geologic and karst vulnerability mapping. We use a High-Medium-Low system to describe the vulnerability of the karst terrain; with High being the areas immediately adjacent to, in the direct watershed, or overtop karst features and cave systems, Medium being the expanse in between high vulnerability areas, or “karsty” areas with a low hydrologic head, and Low being karst areas without features directly leading to the subsurface, these are often covered by thick glacial till (sediments left behind by glaciers) or underlain by less soluble bedrock. No logging activity can occur over areas of high vulnerability karst. My field partner and I will enter units with GPS devices to determine this classification and I use our location data and DEM interpretation to update the “karst layer” that is used by land management specialists in the region. The Tongass karst program serves as a management model for many of the National Forests in the country, so playing a key role in the program has been a great honor and learning experience for me.

Alex enjoying a splendid day hiking through muskegs to get to a reconnaissance area. Photo credit: Brooke Kubby

Working in such an amazing place has definitely had an impact on me. My confidence as a geologist has grown, my navigation skills and competence in hiking rough terrain have developed, I am more comfortable handling responsibility, and my passion for geology and ecology develops every day that I spend contemplating geomorphic processes and geologic history. I believe that I have been especially fortunate to have these experiences, but I would not have gotten to where I am if I hadn’t taken initiative and fully thrown myself into the internships that were available. I now conduct the hiring and interviews for the same GeoCorps position that first brought me here. During college, I was unsure which branch of geology was right for me. It took getting out into the field and immersing myself into a unique environment before I realized exactly where my passions lie, and how I could fit them into the working world. I now plan on attending graduate school this fall for karst hydrogeology, a subject that I would not necessarily have seen myself pursuing 5 years ago. My advice to young geoscientists is to seize opportunity when it presents itself, and dig for opportunity when it doesn’t. Get out of your comfort zone and keep an open mind about how geology plays a role in the world. And finally, when you are applying to jobs or internships, make sure that you give each application your complete effort and attention, even if it might not exactly align with your interests at the time.

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